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Florida Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb, Colored Department (St. Augustine)

The Florida Institute for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb was established in 1883, when the Radical Reconstruction Constitution was still in force in Florida. In its second year, both black and white children were enrolled. The school was mired in controversy from the outset, fighting charges of financial misconduct and cruelty to children, all of which may have been levied simply to discredit the institution by those unhappy with Reconstruction rule, specifically this mixing of the races.

To attract students, however, the school had to be responsive to the prevailing racial attitudes in Florida. By the 1890s,

FSBD seemed to pride itself on the provision of socially demanded separation of the races and the sexes, which was believed to yield moral and social benefits. FSDB took great strides to maintain the proper and socially accepted separation of girls from boys and black from white to gain and foster approval from parents that seemed reluctant to allow their children to attend such a school.1

The creation of a separate "Negro Department" at the school in 1895 coincided with the passage of Sheat’s Law, named after the Florida state superintendent of public instruction. According to the law, blacks and whites could not to be instructed within the same building and white faculty or staff members could not live in the same building as their black students. The law was comprehensive in its efforts to separate the races from any contact. Textbooks for white and black students could not even be stored in the same building.

With $2,000 from the state legislature, the school erected a building specifically for its new department, consisting, for the moment, of five deaf black students. When a blind African-American child applied, he was placed with the deaf students and instructed by the African-American teacher of the deaf because "placing such a student with the white students could have jeopardized the social acceptance of the school."2

In 1937, when a young Ray Charles enrolled at the Florida school, the campus was divided into a complex of buildings for the 300 white students (the North Campus) and a single building for the 90 African-Americans:

The colored faculty, lower-paid than white teachers, always shorthanded, taught a curriculum geared more to "industrial arts" like broom making than to higher education. The colored staff grew vegetables for the dining rooms on North Campus that came back to the colored kids as the white kids’ leftovers . . . veterans of the era also remember the pride of surviving adversity with their chins up. . . .

The Colored Department’s esprit de corps in the 1930s and 40s began with a dedicated faculty. In the Depression and under Jim Crow, a position at Florida D&B was a good job for a young colored professional, and the school attracted talented teachers.3

Opposition to desegregation in St. Augustine was intense, and the city’s population endured numerous protests and fire-bombings. The school was not fully integrated until 1967.

  1. Douglas Mikutel, Silence and Darkness: Historical Origins of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, 1883-1917, Unpublished dissertation, 2004.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Michael Lyon, Ray Charles: Man and Music, 1998, p. 14.